“How old are you? How young am I?” snarls Paul Westerberg in The Replacements’ “I Will Dare,” the first of two songs played to completion over the characteristically lengthy closing credits of Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3. “Let’s count the rings around my eyes.”
GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY VOL. 3 ★★ (2/4 stars)
Once reserved for those who keep coming back to these movies because they have few options, the rings have also been visible around the Marvel cinematic behemoth for the last several iterations, if not longer.
To its credit, the latest and seemingly last Guardians installment— which at times can feel like a Spotify playlist in search of a movie— mostly manages to drown out the corporate exhaustion of its parent company with copious and often inspired needle drops, even more hit-or-miss one-liners, and a visual playfulness that recalls actual comic books.
Unfortunately, the film from writer-director James Gunn—the series mastermind and one-time prodigal son who has since departed the established playing fields of Marvel to become a co-overseer of the DC comics movie franchise—is less successful in its calculated efforts to convince its audience to care. Instead, it creates worlds that it either destroys or simply grows bored with moments later and reduces what should be complicated relationships into reductively earnest proclamations.
“He’s our friend!” bellows Chris Pratt’s Star-Lord, over and over again.
The friend in question and in need is Rocket Raccoon, the irascible pilot and weapons specialist voiced by Bradley Cooper, and the character meant to provide the film’s emotional and narrative through line—and for whom Vol. 3 serves as an origin story.
A simple North American raccoon plucked at random, Rocket was granted an incredible brain and cybernetic implants by this movie’s resident world conqueror, The High Evolutionary. (He’s played by British theater actor Chukwudi Iwuji, who gives the character the personality of an exacerbated executive producer of a long running TV series.)
When a tussle with Warlock (an underused Will Poulter), a super-powered doofus painted up like one of Goldfinger’s victims, triggers a self-destruct mechanism in Rocket’s chest, the team must pilfer the code from a living planet to stop it. This perilous endeavor requires help from the group’s erstwhile adversaries the Ravagers and Gamora (Zoe Saldana), or rather a version of Gamora whom we first met in 2019’s Endgame who shares the same resourcefulness of the Gamora who perished in 2018’s Infinity War—but none of her memories.
As a result, Pratt’s Star Lord spends most of movie pining to the new Gamora about the fun times he spent with the old Gamora like a guy who has been blocked on Instagram by an ex-girlfriend and can’t get over it. While his attempts to rekindle things is violently rejected at first, we all know too well that the object of his ardor will eventually be won over by his man-child charms. The dynamic is entirely too reminiscent of the relationship between Pratt’s character and Wyldstyle in 2014’s The Lego Movie, and is a sad reminder that Hollywood still has no idea how to write “strong female characters” except to make them eventually sacrifice their independence at the altar of the bumbling hero’s goofball allure.
What the film has going for it is Gunn’s undeniable love of comics and his ability to remix and revive them in a way that recalls the playfulness of pop art rather than Marvel’s responsibility to Disney shareholders.
This is most apparent in the delightfully odd costume choices (Orgocorp sentries wear armor resembling dinner rolls and when they float about in zero gravity it recalls Maurice Sendak’s In the Night Kitchen) and the new animal characters. These include new team member Cosmo the Space dog (Maria Bakalova) and Rocket’s love interest, the cyborg otter Lylla (voiced with tenderness by MCU mainstay Linda Cardellini).
But try as it might—and few comic book movies have tried harder—the emotion Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 3 tries to whip up feels forced, empty and pushed on to the characters rather than generated by them. As a result, the movie comes across less like a rousing send off than it does a weary DJ trying to refill the dance floor rather than admit the party ended hours ago.
Observer Reviews are regular assessments of new and noteworthy cinema.